Dear Mayor Catherine Pugh:
We congratulate you on your stance in support of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement that she would no longer prosecute cases of simple cannabis possession. As you so aptly said in support: “The unnecessary criminalization of those who possess marijuana merely for personal use” is not appropriate if we’re going to commit ourselves to addressing violent crime. Yet acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle indicated that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has no intention of changing police procedure. If you stand with SA Mosby, as you say you do, then you must call on the Baltimore City Police Department and Acting Commissioner Harrison to stop arresting people for cannabis possession. There is no other path forward to end this injustice.
We request that you respond to this letter by Friday, March 8, 2019 with a public directive to the BPD to change their arrest and community interaction procedures to reflect the new commitment made by the State’s Attorney’s Office.
As Mayor, you are the chief executive of Baltimore City. You nominate the police commissioner and you have enormous influence in how the police department operates. We look to you to ensure that BPD is responsive to our concerns and promptly ends its racist cannabis policing practices. The long-term harm of continued cannabis possession enforcement is too grave for you not to take bold and immediate action.
For decades, the BPD has prioritized cannabis possession and other low-level offenses over public safety issues. For the last three years, Baltimore has seen almost one killing per day. Our neighbors are dying in the streets in vast numbers, among the highest in the country, and yet the BPD’s solve rates are below 30 percent, among the lowest in the country and half that of the already low national average. At least one study estimates the costs of each homicide prosecution at between $22,000 and $44,000 a year.
There is no question that Baltimore’s legacy of cannabis arrests and prosecution has deeply eroded trust between law enforcement and our communities of color. In April 2014, former Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill into law to reduce the penalty for possession of fewer than 10 grams of cannabis to a simple citation and fine. Decriminalization immediately helped people avoid contact with the justice system, reducing the disruptive, harmful and counterproductive effects that enforcement always imposes. Misdemeanor arrests and charges, however, have remained more or less static, and many people in Baltimore are still criminally prosecuted for possessing cannabis. And nearly all of them — 96 percent — are Black. This is particularly egregious because we have long known that white and Black Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rates. How could this injustice not create conflict? It is no wonder that tensions between Baltimore police and Black communities remain persistently high. But we can take action to help heal this division – and ending enforcement for simple cannabis possession is a critical first step.
By all objective metrics, the War on Drugs is a complete failure; or more specifically, this racist war has succeeded in targeting and dismantling communities of color. Over the past four decades, federal and state governments have poured an estimated $1 trillion into this effort. Yet, the set of regressive policies and policing that make up the drug war have failed to reduce drug use or availability. But one thing the drug war has successfully accomplished is driving up violent crime. Law enforcement agencies, like BPD, frequently argue that drug-related violence is reason to continue enforcing the failed policies that prohibition demands. But, in fact, it is the system of drug prohibition that drives much of the violence they claim to be fighting against. The drug war also overburdens prosecutors. In 2013, 32 percent of defendant filings in U.S. district courts were for drug-related cases, the biggest category of filings. This puts enormous strain on an already resource-limited criminal legal system and the specific overload on prosecutors is a key driver of lower crime clearance rates. Further, above-average homicide rates, like Baltimore currently suffers from, also result in lower successful investigations and prosecutions of homicide cases. And when homicide goes unaddressed, research has shown us, there is a far greater likelihood of more homicide.
Cannabis the most widely-used illicit substance in the United States. Ten states, including the District of Columbia, have legalized cannabis for adult use. Thirty-two states, including Maryland, have approved medical cannabis. Two in three Americans now support the full legalization of cannabis. And a strong majority of Maryland voters also say that cannabis should be legalized.
SA Mosby has taken one step on a sensible path toward securing public safety and restoring faith in law enforcement. But that path is meaningless so long as the police insist on arresting and incarcerating for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety. We need strong leadership from you to make clear that our community resources should be used to keep our community safe.
With your leadership, Baltimore can rebalance its public safety priorities, foster trust between Black communities and the police, reduce the dramatic racial disparities in cannabis enforcement, and start improving its response to serious crimes as the community needs. Several other cities provide examples of how to accomplish this important change, including New York City and New Orleans. Both introduced city policies to end arrests for cannabis possession. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio negotiated with the police to end arrests for people smoking or possessing cannabis in public view. This policy change came about because of community pressure to further limit arrests in response to dramatic racial disparities in cannabis arrests reported a few months earlier. Police now issue civil tickets in the vast majority of cases, tickets that involve a civil fine or one day of community service but no possibility of jail time. New Orleans City Council, with the support of New Orleans Police Department Superintendent William Harrison, implemented a similar policy in their city ending arrests for anyone over the age of 17 who possess less than 2.5 pounds of cannabis in 2016.
We need your support and leadership to foster trust between Black communities and the police, and prioritize addressing the serious crimes that plague our city. As your constituents and neighbors, we ask you to be equally bold in embracing this critical reform and ensuring that the police stop arresting our citizens for marijuana enforcement.
[List in formation]
- African American Democratic Clubs of Maryland
- Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
- Charm City Care Connection
- Clergy for a New Drug Policy
- Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
- Human Trafficking Prevention Project
- Interfaith Action for Human Rights
- Justice Policy Institute
- Law Enforcement Action Partners
- Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United Inc. (MOMS)
- Power Inside
- No Boundaries Coalition
- Nurses for Justice-Baltimore
- Sex Workers Outreach Project